My brother-in-law, "B," is a project manager for a company that designs hospital software. Lately, he's had to travel to Canada (I want to say Alberta or Saskatchewan, but I'm not positive) to work with a team there.

While he and my sister were visiting for Christmas, B mentioned some of the interesting cultural things he's learned from his Canadian counterparts. The one that stuck out to me had to do with idioms.

In the United States, we use the phrase "the elephant in the room" to refer to some big, uncomfortable issue that everyone is aware of but no one wants to talk about. According to B, his Canadian colleagues use a different phrase: "the moose on the table."

I'm pretty sure we've all seen both moose and elephants, if only in pictures or on TV. But even then, it can be hard to get a sense of just how big these animals actually are. Here are a couple of pictures for scale:

Moose vs. car (source)

African elephant vs. car (source)


Coincidentally, I've recently been watching a show called I Shouldn't Be Alive, which has several episodes in which people get lost in the African bush. In most, if not all, of those cases, one of the victims' greatest fears is encountering elephants. Before watching this show, I hadn't realized that they can be quite aggressive if surprised or threatened. It makes the American idiom even more appropriate. Idioms and figures of speech can give some interesting insights into the cultures from which they come. For example, Americans tend to exaggerate to make a point, and there aren't many animals bigger than an elephant. I don't know enough about Canadian culture to draw a lot of insights from "the moose on the table," but I do know that the moose is one of the biggest animals native to Canada. I suspect a moose on the table would be just as hard to ignore as an elephant in the room and would present a similar level of danger. Maybe the fact that the Canadians refer to a native animal indicates that they're more down-to-earth than Americans? ;)

So when you're creating a fictional world, consider what common idioms or figures of speech your characters might use. Leverage those phrases to subtly tell your readers about what that world is like and what matters to its inhabitants:

  • In Star Wars Rebels, Zeb often mutters, "Carrabast!" in stressful situations. This shows that there are non-English (er, non-Basic) languages in this setting and that Zeb is likely bilingual, which makes viewers curious about his backstory. 

  • In the Asterix and Obelix series, someone cries out, "By [insert Gaulish or Roman god]!" at least once per book. This shows the polytheistic nature of most religions in this setting and tells us something about the relationships the characters have with their gods, as mortals apparently have no qualms about tossing deities' names around.

Worldbuilding can be one of the most nuanced and most fun parts of writing. And I'd love to help you with it. Click here and search on the page for "Services Offered" to check out my full list of services and book the ones you need.

Write on,